Opinion

Transition to Adulthood For Youth Leaving Care Can Be Made Smoother, Safer

transitions: Cheerful young guy riding bicycle

DeanDrobot/Shutterstock

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Avid cyclists understand if anyone spends enough time riding a bicycle, they will crash at some point. Crashes are more likely for someone who is learning to ride. Hopefully, it is not a dramatic flip over the handlebars in the midst of a crowded street after a car smashes into the bike.  

Ideally, after the crash the cyclist walks away uninjured with the bike intact. Crashing is an unfortunate part of cycling. It is an unfortunate part of life. Crises happen. We are going to look at avoiding crashing in life — specifically the potential hardships and crises youth in foster care face as they transition to adulthood — or at least minimizing the damage, using biking as a metaphor.

Riding a bicycle is a metaphor for living life. Learning to ride a bike often begins at home where parents guard their children to ensure their safety. Not all children are safe at home — regardless of whether they are biking or not. Child maltreatment is an epidemic. When children are not safe at home, the child protection system intervenes. Almost 450,000 children are placed in foster care annually in the United States.

Some children in foster care may not have learned to bike at home for a number of reasons, such as the parents were not around, the parents did not have the resources in the home to buy a bike or the neighborhoods were unsafe for riding a bike. Likewise, some children may not have had the opportunities to learn other life skills from their parents. When children are removed from their families, the foster care system is responsible for teaching life skills and ensuring youth are prepared to live on their own. Continuing with the bike metaphor, the system is responsible for ensuring children in care are able to ride a bike safely so that when they leave care they are prepared for smooth ride.

Transitioning to adulthood

transitions: Lisa Schelbe (headshot), assistant professor at the Florida State University College of Social Work, smiling woman with short brown hair, earrings, glasses, necklace, blue polka-dotted top.

Lisa Schelbe

We can think of the transition to adulthood as the time when training wheels are removed and the young adult is on their own riding their bike. Some young adults have expensive brand-new bicycles and protective gear. Their supportive parents, family and friends ride with them or lead the way along smooth quiet paths with little traffic as the young adults learn to bike on their own.

At the other extreme, some young adults ride alone without a helmet on an old rusty bike with a slow-leaking tire along busy city streets. Not only are these young adults more likely to encounter cars dangerously close to them and potholes jarring their ride, but if they have a problem, they are alone. They do not have the people there to help them change a flat tire or help if they are sideswiped by a car. Riding alone they are more vulnerable.

Although it is changing, riding alone is the expectation for many young people leaving care and transitioning to adulthood. Unfortunately, these young people often have poorer gear and a bumpier path filled with more hazards. The transition out of care and into adulthood can be filled with challenges and hardships for youth.   

A recent study examined the struggles, successes and setbacks of youth transitioning out of the child welfare system who were living in a subsidized housing program. The key take-home messages included the fact that youth who received housing and services continued to encounter struggles. When youth had setbacks in one area of their lives, their ability to maintain housing was undermined.

Likewise, the challenges they experienced in one area of their lives impacted others. Often structural barriers (i.e., lack of public transportation, lack of employment opportunities, isolated neighborhoods) contributed to their lack of well-being. Service providers diligently worked to help youth, but there were many challenges. These messages can easily be applied to our biking metaphor and can help us think about youth leaving care.

Not seeing someone on a bike contributes to crashes, especially with cars. Wearing reflective clothing and having a light on the bike increases visibility and decreases the likelihood of crashes. Central to assisting youth leave care is the widespread recognition of their needs. Youth leaving care must be visible.

Prevention and Interventions

Sometimes youth transition out of care abruptly and are inadequately prepared. These youth are racing downhill on wobbly bikes, and we may wince at every curve wondering if they are going too fast and going to miss a curve. As we watch with complete certainty that the youth’s demise is within seconds, we see they are focusing and working hard. Still, we sigh with relief when they come to a safe stop.

When the youth starts to crash, it may seem like it is all over, but often extraordinary things happen. Some have lightning-quick reflexes and at the last minute are able to jump off the bike and emerge from the crash unhurt like a well-trained stunt person. Their resilience and resourcefulness help them avoid catastrophe. Sometimes crashes cannot be avoided and a crash cuts and bruises the youth, but they apply a salve that heals the injury. Many of the youth have crashed many times so they seem not to notice the pain. Someone looking closely would see there are scars and the bike has dents and scratches.

Service providers can prepare youth for the ride through coaching and giving them opportunities to practice. Youth need the chance to practice life skills when the stakes are low and they have support. Service providers can make recommendations about the routes and ensure youth create plans. As youth embark on their ride, service providers can remain available with their first aid kits and make sure there is enough light for the youth to see their path. Maybe when youth are getting tired or wanting help, service providers can ride with the youth or even help fix a bike.

Just like giving a bike to someone who does not know how to ride does not set them up for success, simply providing basic services and resources will likely not be adequate to help youth after leaving care. Support and ongoing follow-up is necessary to ensure that the transition to adulthood goes smoothly.

The challenges that youth face while leaving care are complex and there are no easy fixes. Service providers must be creative in addressing the interconnected issues. They also need to make sure that the basics are covered. A simple flat tire can ruin a bike ride. Changing a tire requires some skills and practice as well as having a spare tire available. If the flat tire is not fixed, biking becomes more difficult and if it is not fixed soon, there can be permanent damage to the bike’s wheels.  A minor setback can create a cascading effect of problems in youths’ lives.

Youth are not going to achieve success and stay there. Just because they are riding smoothly and everything looks beautiful does not mean that the next moment they are not going to hit a pothole, have a dog start chasing them, have a pedestrian step in front of them or have something else disrupt their ride.

The fluidity of success for youth leaving care highlights the fact that while youth may experience success, they may also have a setback that threatens their success. A youth may receive a promotion at work, but car problems may cause the youth to be disciplined for being late to work. Setbacks in one part of a youth’s life can undermine the ability to maintain housing, employment and education. The issues are interconnected and often challenging to address.

Major Problems

The biggest threat to crashing a bike on the road is cars. Cars can be thought of as major problems that have a potential to derail a youth: amassing significant debt, dropping out of school, losing housing, having a child at an early age or becoming involved in the justice system.

We cannot simply remove all cars from the road. However, we can educate youth about some of the problems and prepare them in case they encounter them. Providing information to youth by itself is inadequate. Bike riders have a responsibility to look out for cars, but car drivers must also be responsible.  Making sure systems are aware of the needs of youth leaving care is important. Colleges and universities can offer campus-based support programs to address their needs. Housing can be provided specifically for youth leaving care. Avoiding major problems is beneficial to both the youth and society in general.

There are a multitude of structural barriers in society that challenge youths’ stability and well-being as they leave care. These are policies and macro-level forces that inhibit youths’ options and create hardships. Examples include lack of affordable safe housing, social isolation and disparities in schools. Policymakers and advocates must work to eliminate these obstacles so that the youth has a fighting chance to safely ride. This will require policy changes that promote equality and eliminate poverty.

Getting on the bike and starting down a road is one success. However, it is not the end point. To help youth transitioning out of care, we need to promote safety and increase their likelihood of success.  

Transition planning must be more than removing the training wheels, handing young adults a map and wishing them luck. Preparation for youth to succeed begins when they are in care.

There will be crashes while learning. Learning to ride a bike is a skill and practice youth need. This is where services have the potential to increase the chances for success for youth transitioning to adulthood. Programs provide numerous resources and support, but more are needed and policymakers must make adequate funding for programs a priority.

The system needs to make sure youth are prepared to ride and needs to provide support throughout the transition process. Inevitably, youth will occasionally crash, but service providers need to be there to help as youth disentangle themselves from their bike, stand up and assess the damage. They need to try to minimize the damage and make sure that youth have access to safety gear. Youth need to be able to survive the crash so that with support, they can get back on the bike and continue their journey.

Lisa Schelbe is an assistant professor at the Florida State University College of Social Work and co-editor of the Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal. Her research focuses on “aging out” and the experiences of the transitions of young people from the system to life on their own as adults.  

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